Up To A Point…
My Coffee Klatch With Rand Paul
The Kentucky small-l libertarian (and likely presidential candidate) talks with P.J. O’Rourke about philosophy, money, and hopelessness.
The office of Senator Rand Paul, advocate of limited government, is in the Russell Senate Office Building — monumentally huge, forbidding, and labyrinthine to the extent that I got lost three times trying to find him.
Senators and their staffers used to fit into the Capital Building, which is, you’d think, monumentally huge enough for any 100 dignitaries. But according to the Senate Historical Office website, “With the steady growth of legislative business… Congress has constantly struggled to create sufficient workspace.”
Construction of the Russell Building began in 1906 during the “Progressive” Era. Until 1972 it was called simply The Senate Office Building – SOB for short. Then the SOB was named for one, Sen. Richard Russell, who represented Georgia from 1933 until 1971 and was notable mostly for support of segregation.
I said to Sen. Paul, “I don’t know if what I need is an interview or a socio-political therapy session. Libertarian political principles must be applicable to practical politics or what are political principals for? But I’m not feeling it. I’m deeply conflicted. Although I know you’re not that kind of doctor.”
“I could do an exorcism,” Sen. Paul said. He described his own political situation, “If I try to be a pretty good libertarian I get attacked by the left, by the right, and by the libertarians.”
This was General Ferdinand Foch’s message to Marshal Joseph Joffre during the First Battle of the Marne -- “My center is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking” -- except not in French and said with a smile.
As for political principles, Sen. Paul said, “In Washington principled individuals are in the minority. There’s a good side to this. The majority can be influenced by public opinion.”
And, reversing Lord Acton’s maxim about power corrupting, Sen. Paul thinks the lack of it purifies: “As opponents to President Obama we’re more principled than when we were in power.”
(I hope Sen. Paul is right about this. Powerlessness can also make people act crazy. I’ll name no specific Republicans.)
“A principled GOP could,” said the Senator, “find people on both left and right to cooperate on issues.” He listed some:
“The inequities of the criminal justice system.”
“Fourth Amendment privacy.”
That is, the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, and papers – which should forbid the government from poking around in my iPhone looking for sexts. I’m almost 67. I don’t know how to text. And I don’t remember much about sex either.
“The economy,” Sen. Paul said. “Although that’s mostly on the right. But some on the left are beginning to realize what’s wrong, sort of.”
“Foreign policy,” he added.
I wasn’t going to bring that up. Sen. Paul has been getting a dunking in the media for his flip-flops on foreign policy. To my mind this is nothing compared to the flip-flops done lately by foreigners. (Foreigners being something foreign policy has to take into account.) NATO ally Turkey has flipped – opposing us against ISIS. Iran has flopped – opposing ISIS against us. Assad, the Syrians who hate him, and Iraqi Sunni tribesmen are all flipping and flopping. Our foreign policy canoe is filled to the gunnels with catch-and-release trout armed with AK-47s. I’m not surprised a senator – or even a president – has changed his mind about giving these fishy characters a whack on the head with the paddle.
Sen. Paul didn’t mention his critics but said “Congress does have a say.” And he went on to give as much of a Rand Paul Middle East Doctrine as a place where doctrine is the problem can take.
“The fighting needs to be done by the people who live there. They all recognize barbarity. The Kurds are worth helping. We know what they want. They know what they want. They’re fighting to get it.”
“What do the Iraqis want?” I asked. “The Iraqis need to be re-rented,” he said, and become someone else’s problem.
Sen. Paul pointed out a Middle-Eastern cruel irony. (The region has no other kind.) “Toppling secular dictators,” he said, “has caused more trouble than anything else. Gaddafi hadn’t been a threat for a long time. Saddam Hussein wasn’t a threat. Assad isn’t a threat. Egypt may be a little different. We didn’t have very much to do with that.”
I suppose, when America starts nation building, we’d better know what kind of Lego sets are available locally. Anyway, the nation Sen. Paul would most like to build is America. And an important part of that project is cleaning up and putting away the vast number of interlocking government blocks of bureaucracy and pointy-headed figurines of officialdom scattered across our national carpet causing us to yell Ouch! and hop on one foot when we try to go anywhere without wearing our regulatory lawyer and tax accountant shoes.
Sen. Paul said, “Any number of arguments for limited government can be made, but just two are necessary. First is the Thomas Paine natural liberty argument.”
We surrender certain of our natural liberties to a government of our own making in return for public safety and order. Government is a necessary evil, and like all evils, however necessary, should be kept as small as possible.
My example would be servings of vegetables. Some varieties of kale grow to a height of six or seven feet. I don’t want that on my dinner plate next to a T-bone steak the size of a Susan B. Anthony dollar.
“Second,” said Sen. Paul, “is the Milton Friedman efficiency argument.”
In Milton Friedman’s 1980 PBS TV series “Free To Choose,” Friedman drew a simple graph showing that, mathematically, there are only four ways to spend money.
Spending your money on yourself is efficient. Tonight’s Special, prime rib with a small side dish of kale, looks like a good deal.
Spending your money on other people is efficient too. She’ll have the mac and cheese.
Spending other people’s money on yourself is not so efficient. The Wall Street Hedge Fund Managers’ Annual Dinner will be at Maxim’s in Paris.
But spending other people’s money on other people is the way government spending is done. Free caviar for all Americans! Whether they like caviar or not. And get in line because there’s nothing except caviar, and it will be rationed.
Sen. Paul called himself “libertarian-ish,” willing to vote against planks in the platform of the Libertarian Party. “Of which I am not a member.”
There’s a difficulty with the capital L Libertarian Party. (Seats in the Senate 0. Seats in the House 0. Governorships 0. Seats in state legislatures 0.)
“The difficulty,” said Sen. Paul, “is that everyone has his or her opinion, and everyone knows he or she is right.”
Libertarians are strictly logical so, it stands to reason, every libertarian is right. And everyone else, including other libertarians, is wrong.
“Isn’t that,” I said, “an odd outcome for a political theory based on the value of each individual?”
The Senator smiled and shrugged. “I never really felt like it was a problem explaining libertarian principles in practical politics. Republicans are champions of economic liberty. Democrats are champions of personal liberty. Bring the two back together.”
The Senator said, “The problem is mostly how people characterize libertarianism. But that’s changing. Libertarian has gone from being something scary to something people like as a label for themselves.”
He said, “There are different ways to get where we want to go.” And gave an example of going nowhere. “Nothing good has come out of the war on drugs.”
“What’s a different way?” I asked.
“I like the unenumerated powers.”
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people. The Tenth Right in the Bill of Rights keeps us from having just nine rights.
“In The Federalist Papers,” I said, “Hamilton argued against the Bill of Rights on the grounds that government even mentioning rights like free speech implied government had some power over those rights.”
“But it’s a good thing we did write them down,” the Senator said, “otherwise we’d have nothing left.”
Senator Paul asked, not quite rhetorically, “Is this the ‘Libertarian Moment’? If so, it probably won’t come from a third party. Probably it will come from within a party.”
“From within the Democratic Party?” He didn’t seem to think it was inconceivable. “In New Hampshire,” he said, “even Democrats are against state income and sales taxes.”
But he didn’t seem to think it was likely either. “Republicans are an ideological coalition,” he said. “Democrats are a coalition of ideologies. The only thing Democrats agree on is income redistribution.”
Sen. Paul said, “Republicans have tradition on their side. It’s the American revolution versus the French Revolution.”
This was a switch – a flip-flop if you will – from Thomas Paine’s radical liberty de facto to Edmund Burke’s traditional liberty de jure. But I don’t fault the Senator. No friend of liberty can avoid the tumble back and forth between Burke and Paine.
“Tradition is a good thing,” the Senator said. “Ninety percent of Americans don’t break the law, not because there’s a law against it, but because they have a tradition of conscience. Republicans are traditional. But tradition can be boring. Libertarianism spices things up. Republicans have to either adapt, evolve, or die. They either have to water [down] their message -- or extend liberty.”
I walked back to my hotel in a cheerful mood. And the longer the mood lasted the more it alarmed me. Did I want an exorcism? I’ve been politically engaged, as they call it, for 50 years – since I went with high school friends to picket Barry Goldwater for fear he’d get us into a war in Southeast Asia or something. In the meantime I’ve been disappointed by 25 Congresses and between 8 and 8½ presidencies.
A principled campaign for limited government. It’s the thing with feathers. That perches in the soul. And craps on the frontal lobe? I tried to kick a pigeon. I walked into a gloomy bar.